Oct. 20, 2008
By Bob Socci
Midway through a 12-game regular season, the bye week could not have come at a better time.
Created by the schedule maker, it was exactly what the team doctor would have ordered, if given such authority. And precisely what the fullback might have asked for, if granted such a wish.
"The week off was amazing," said a rejuvenated Eric Kettani, a few days after his first weekend away from football in two-plus months. "I needed those days off. I feel 10 times better."
If anyone had earned the right to a respite, it was Kettani.
Since August, he's exposed his body to the hard knocks of preseason camp and six straight weeks of unforgiving punishment in the opening half of 2008.
Time and again, as the first of the three dimensions to Navy's triple-option offense, he's crouched into a so-called 'three-point' stance - his weight supported by the fingertips of his right hand - and sprung forward, into the belly of opposing defenses.
Whether or not Kettani winds up with the football in his hands, it doesn't matter. Nearly every play he's subjecting himself to a pounding from defensive ends and tackles, giving away as many as 50 pounds, if not more.
In the last month alone, he strained his left hip in a loss at Duke, before fighting his way to nearly 400 yards rushing in successive victories over Rutgers, Wake Forest and Air Force.
"My hip's been sore," says Kettani, whose daily trips to the trainer's room include soaking his body in an ice-cold bath. "I tore something in it."
Meanwhile, as if absorbing all those blows from opponents isn't enough, lately he's taken repeated shots from teammates. Albeit tongue-in-cheek jabs, neither physical in nature nor intended to cause harm.
Except, perhaps, to bruise a man's feelings and deflate his ego. As only his buddies can do.
Just as all's fair in love and war, when it comes to locker-room put-downs, everything is in play. From one's sense of self to his sense of style. Or, if you're to believe someone like long-snapper Will Scarle, a lack thereof.
Scarle recently critiqued Kettani's wardrobe for Camille Powell of The Washington Post.
"I describe some of his shirts as 'tacky tablecloths,'" said Scarle, who likely won't be borrowing anything from Kettani's closet, as his roommate in Bancroft Hall. "If you were going to a '70s disco, Eric would be the freshest cat in the club."
Not just what he wears, but how he wears it makes Kettani an inviting target - one who Scarle sees as equal parts genius and jester.
"I think he's an even mix of Albert Einstein and a clown," he told Powell.
Scarle also questioned Kettani's speed, noting that "a 320-pound man was catching up to him" on one of his recent long runs.
To which Kettani retorted, "Go look up Scarle's stats."
Powell also approached wide receiver Tyree Barnes about Kettani's yet-to-be-written autobiography, which he wryly says he'd entitle "Putting my Phenomenal Pants On, One Leg at Time."
"I'm pretty sure it'd be the thickest book on the shelf," Barnes quipped. "And then he'd make it into a movie."
You might wonder, with friends like this, who needs arch rivals from West Point or Colorado Springs? Yet, Kettani takes it all in stride, recognizing that they tease because, well, they love.
Besides, as Navy's leading rusher a year ago, halfway to 1,000 yards midway through this season, he talks a game as well as he plays it. So well, it seems, he's in a chattering class all by himself.
If Kettani's legs aren't running, there's a good chance his mouth is. Whether to teammates or reporters.
Asked if ever tires of questions, as one of the Midshipmen's elder statesman, Kettani replied, "Of course not. You know me."
For the record, he appreciates Powell's piece, referring to it as "a great article." Though he suggests that as an economics, and not an English major, he'd likely bypass the book to take his life's story straight to film.
Kettani even thinks Russell Crowe would be a good fit for the lead role. Unless, he decides to play himself.
If Navy head coach Kenny Niumatalolo had any input, he'd probably take the latter, considering that Crowe's most memorable characters - from L.A. Confidential to Gladiator - rarely cracked a smile.
"Eric's got a great sense of humor," Niumatalolo says. "Sometimes it's hard to get on him, because he's such a great kid. He's a pleasant person to be around. He's always got a smile on his face."
And always, adds assistant coach Mike Judge, Kettani understands the difference between play time and time to play.
"(Eric) thinks he's pretty witty, but I'm from North Jersey, so he doesn't really faze me" says Judge, who enjoys his give-and-take with Kettani until it's time to get down to business. "He knows what to say and when to say it."
He also knows when to say nothing at all, either leaving the talking to his coaches or deferring to the silence of superstition.
Kettani was an especially-attentive listener the week after the Mids early-September visit to Duke.
That had been both a short-lived outing and a long afternoon. He injured his hip on his first carry, never to return to a 41-31 defeat.
"That was tough," Kettani said of his helplessness along the sideline. "It's the first time I ever did that, at least the first time since my freshman year."
But this being his senior year, Kettani was soon approached by Niumatalolo, Judge and a third coach, Ivin Jasper. Each stressing a sense of urgency. For him and the team.
"It was like a three-headed monster; the position coach, the offensive coordinator and the head coach," said Judge, a newcomer to the Navy staff. "We laid it out for him. The end is quickly approaching. This isn't going to last forever."
"We know for us to be successful, he has to play great," says Niumatalolo. "It's not that Eric was playing bad, (but) he could be doing so much more."
Niumatalolo had earlier gone on record saying Kettani's "got all the physical tools" to be "as good as we've had here." So, with a quarter of the season behind them, the first-year head coach had a heart-to-heart with Kettani. As did Judge and Jasper.
"It was a way to push me," says Kettani. "You sit there and think this is my senior year. You see the light at the end of the tunnel. You want to play every game like it's your last game."
You also realize that Niumatalolo isn't prone to engage in lip service. If he thinks you have more to give, you probably do.
And when he suggests you can be better than the likes of Kyle Eckel and Adam Ballard, two of the Mids' top seven all-time leading rushers, you better take him seriously.
"Considering the great fullbacks at Navy, it was a huge, huge compliment," said Kettani, whose cell phone often flashes text messages from predecessor Eckel and rings with calls from Ballard and another ex-fullback, Matt Hall.
"Eric took it to heart," Niumatalolo said of his and his assistants' conversations with Kettani.
Took it to heart, and took it to the next three opponents for the Mids.
Starting with 133 yards on the ground in a 23-21 victory over Rutgers, he continued with a career-best 175 yards at Wake Forest.
Kettani carried the ball just 19 times against the Demon Deacons, averaging more than nine yards per rushing attempt. Included was his 57-yard run at the five-minute mark, setting up a decisive score in a 24-17 win over nationally-ranked Wake.
Then, at Air Force, he did yeoman's work in a 33-27 triumph. With the Falcons clogging the middle, Kettani rushed for 75 yards on 22 carries.
None bigger than a 4th-and-1 dive with less than a minute to go, four plays after he plucked an onsides kick out of the thin air of Colorado Springs.
"He did a great job of catching the ball and covering up," Niumatalolo said of Kettani's late recovery on special teams, before summing up his even later decision to leave his feet for that critical 4th-down conversion. "We normally want you to keep your feet on the ground to run through contact. There were no holes, so Eric's only alternative was to dive. He sold out and made a play."
This was consistent with what Kettani had done all day long vs. the Falcons.
"He made his own holes against Air Force," said Niumatalolo. "The guys up front know they could have played better, but Eric didn't use any excuses.
"Considering we were at their place, coming off two tough games, playing our rival, what he did was phenomenal."
Naturally, he did one leg at a time.
Of course, sealing victories is one thing. Sealing lips is entirely another, especially when you'd be a consensus choice for first team All-Gregarious.
A devotee of Animal Planet, Kettani often peppered teammates in the past with minutia he heard on wildlife documentaries. But when the Mids began their winning streak in late September, Kettani stopped spreading his knowledge of the animal kingdom.
"We started winning after I stopped giving animal facts," he said after the win over Air Force, admitting that former Navy coach Paul Johnson got him hooked on superstitions. "We can't talk about animals."
But while Kettani didn't dare draw analogies from other species to describe his attributes at fullback, others were left to ponder. Does he possess the strength and persistence of a battering ram? Are his feet as nimble as a mongoose? Is he as fast as a cheetah, or as graceful as a gazelle?
Then, there's always the conventional football scouting report.
"He's one of our stronger kids and one of our faster kids," Niumatalolo says of Kettani, who reportedly bench presses 395 pounds and covers 40 yards in 4.59 seconds. "We're not looking for a (traditional) fullback that has a neck roll on and tries to run straight ahead and run over people.
"Eric's also got nimble feet and good hands."
Kettani's also got a true sense of where he is and where he should be within the Mids' offense.
"(Eric's) done an exceptional job of understanding the concept of the offense," says Judge. "He knows where he is supposed to be and has an understanding of where the blocks are coming from. He's a fairly well-rounded player, from that point of view."
"You need to see the cuts before they happen," explains Kettani, attributing his on-field clairvoyance to experience. "I know what everyone in our offense is doing."
If he can anticipate where his blocker is going, he can envision a hole before it develops. It's the difference between the short gains of Kettani's youth and the longer runs of upper-class years. Like his 71-yard touchdown sprint last season vs. Ball State.
Refining his talent and sharpening his football I.Q., Kettani's had plenty of tutoring.
"Coach (Chris) Culton did a great job teaching me where my eyes are supposed to be," he says of his former fullback coach, who now works with Navy's offensive line.
With Judge, much of their attention is fixed on making Kettani more elusive, hoping to leave defenders in his wake in the open field.
Meanwhile, he's mentoring younger teammates, such as his roommate on the road, Alex Teich. Much like ex-Midshipmen Ballard and Hall once did for him.
In fact, their insight helped Kettani develop as a youngster, so much so he was splitting reps with each in the Navy backfield.
As early as 2006, he was entrusted with 53 carries, mostly in the season's final two months, including a 91-yard outburst vs. Eastern Michigan at Detroit's Ford Field. Then as a junior last year, Kettani rushed for a team-high 880 yards and scored 11 touchdowns.
That '07 performance launched his candidacy as one of 45 players on the preseason 'watch list' for the 2008 Doak Walker Award, presented to the college running back who best distinguishes himself on and off the field.
Averaging nearly six yards per carry this fall, Kettani eclipsed 500 yards by the end of the afternoon at Air Force. All while hauling a disproportionate load of the Mids' offense, compared to past fullbacks.
"My body's beat up," Kettani admits. "I'm playing 60 plays instead of 30. It takes a huge toll on your body. Especially in our offense, you get hit no matter what."
"He's shouldered the load," Judge said, noting his own preference for developing "a flow" with a primary fullback when he was an option quarterback at Springfield College. "We want him in there as much as we can."
"(Eric's) been battling nagging injuries," adds Niumatalolo about a senior who's accounted for 90 of this year's 105 rushing attempts by Navy fullbacks. "We've had the luxury before of always having two guys (sharing fullback duties). But he's getting the majority of reps."
And he's getting the majority of attention these days. Not only from classmates who do their best to keep him grounded.
Just a week or two ago, Kettani was in the middle of a rather awkward classroom hypothetical. Presiding over a class discussion, a Naval Law professor posed the question, "What if I call Mr. Kettani, 'Mr. Phenomenal,' is it sexual harassment?"
It taught him a couple of things.
One, the answer is no, since Kettani anointed himself as such in a major newspaper. Facetiously or not. And, secondly, he's really made quite a name for himself.
However unlikely it might seem. Considering the sport and place in which he's done it, as a first-generation American. When his parents came to the United States in 1984, football was a game they - like most of the rest of the world - knew only as a sport played strictly with one's feet, not a helmet and shoulder pads.
A native of Algeria, Mounir Kettani met his wife, Collette, while he was studying aerospace engineering in Ireland. Their eldest son, Amir, was born in Dublin and, after the family relocated to Northeast Ohio, grew up to become a collegiate goalkeeper in that other football - a.k.a. soccer.
He was good enough to try out with D.C. United, after ranking among the national leaders in saves per game at Cleveland State. But Amir eventually joined the family business, MK Industries. Selling and servicing jet engines, his father had expanded his company from North America to the Pacific Rim, after founding it in 2001.
About that time, his youngest son switched from one kind of football to the other, soon becoming a stalwart at Lake Catholic High School as the Cleveland-Plain Dealer's Defensive Player of the Year.
Projected by most recruiters to be a college linebacker or safety, Eric Kettani was a straight-A student with a mutual attraction to the Naval Academy. He opted to play fullback for the Midshipmen.
From day one, his parents have been regulars in Annapolis and abroad, following his career - if not all the nuances of every game.
"They had no idea what was going on," Eric says of his parents' introduction to his football career. "My dad understands that a touchdown is good. My mom just cringes."
Mounir, who is fluent in several languages, and Collette didn't need to know anything about American football to understand good parenting.
That much was evident last week, when their son picked up the phone to pick up where he left off. Kettani was calling - even after being interviewed in two separate conversations - because he'd forgotten to recognize yet another very important couple.
So he dialed in a request to acknowledge and thank Mike and Donna Titsworth, who've opened their hearts and home to Kettani and other midshipmen, as their local sponsors.
Kettani enjoys them so much he often is questioned by friends, wondering why he'd forgo trips to the mall or movies to spend time at his sponsors.
It's why he wants the record to reflect his words: "They're two of the nicest people I've met in my entire life."
It might be stretching it to call him Mr. Phenomenal, but Kettani's classy gesture was pretty extraordinary. It goes to show what Mike Judge recognized.
Eric Kettani knows what to say, and when to say it.